North Korea trip report


Senior Insider
Finally.. I'll put this into a new thread.

The background

L had booked a dance trip to Cuba for June and originally I had planned to stay home. Early May a friend booked a trip to Hong Kong with British Airways frequent flyer miles on Finnair's direct flight which turned out to be an excellent way to spend the miles. I looked into it a bit and found that the availability for direct flights from Helsinki to e.g. China were pretty good but what would I do?

I've always wanted to visit North Korea. Not because I support the system but because it's rather unique place and one day it will be gone. I spent a weekend googling, found a few agencies arranging trips from China, sent e-mails, checked the schedules and a week later I had booked flights to Beijing and a trip to North Korea. A week later and everything was paid, tourist visa to North Korea was good to go, and everything was set.

I might come back to the Beijing part later, after all you don't always visit the Great Wall by being the "only tourist there today" and meet "Military Zone" signs..

Visiting North Korea

There are a handful of tour companies arranging trips to NK. The itinerary is typically pretty much the same, and one will always be accompanied by a guide. For the same price one can be a member of a group, with two guides and a driver, or do it as a private tour/person with one guide and a driver.

I chose to be part of a small group as it would be more free (just two guides for the whole group), there would be some adventorous souls for sure, and it would be more fun. I'm not a fan of group tours but it made sense this time.

Propaganda? Who cares. Safety? I couldn't think a safer place to visit. At the end, visiting North Korea was dead easy and one of a kind trip.

My group had about 15 people. Mostly people living in Asia but originally from Europe; swedish, german, quite a few dutch, spanish/singaporean, polish, french, one australian who turned out to be a writer for Lonely Planet, canadian, and one american. I was one of the very few who actually lived in the birth country. Businessmen, travellers, lawyers and one of the swedish guys was a writer who was writing a fiction book where North koreans were uber-humans and he was doing research for the book. The agency was run by a british guys and their guy that flew with us had been to North Korea over 120 times.

Overall a great trip. The first night we spent until 4am with the dutch (Cathay Pacific's 747 pilot) and australian guy, drinking beer, playing pool, getting the bowling alley in the "dungeons" opened for us, and even managed to convince the staff to let us walk around with the beers. As the ozzie said, one has enough time to sleep anyway so the trip had quite a few long nights. From a tourist point of view NK is "free world", you can buy your bottle of duty free spirits, take the bottle to the bar and ask for a glass. No problem. Feel like smoking? Just ask for an ash tray.

.. ok, let's get started.


Senior Insider

This the plane from Beijing to Pyongyang. There was a big chance it would have been Tupolev TU-204 which is a modern plane but I was lucky and it wasn't -- it was an Iljushin Il-62M.


This is the magic card that gets you in. For the NK trip you can choose between flying and taking a train. The default combo is flying in and taking the train back. The train takes about a day so I chose to fly both ways. The train people are part of a group visa so flying has the advantage of getting your personal visa.

To get a visa I had to submit just a copy of my passport and a copy of my photo. Very straightforward. Actually easier than most countries I've been to that require a visa.


Air Koryo does have business class, too.


.. and the North Koreans who have the privilege to visit China, do travel with plenty of luggage. Check-in was very smooth and fast, they don't have luggage limits nor duty-free limits. The ozzie guy really wanted to know if one can bring as much booze as one wants to.. and he did.


Considering how old the plane was, it was in a really good shape. There are only a handful of airlines who fly these any longer; Cubana, Deta Air and Trust Air in Kazakhstan, Air Koryo, Rossiya in Russia and Ukraine Air Enterprise.

The flight was very smooth. One can feel the military skills in the engineering.


Air Koryo offers a tasty meal and some glossy magazines about North Korea. Yes, I did eat everything and it wasn't too bad.


The eagle has landed and one can feel the excitement in the air.

You don't want to take photographs of the immigration and customs.


One cannot bring mobile phones to North Korea. The train folks had their mobile phones taken separately but I was flying, I had to it myself. There was a "mobile storage" at the airport where you hand your mobile phone and get this nice receipt to get your phone back. Obviously at this point your imagination is the only limit to what they'll do to your phone while you're in the country.

The customs is relatively strict. You are not supposed to bring stack loads of bibles to the country. You are not supposed to bring GPS to the country because everyone with an GPS is considered a SPY. You are not supposed to bring long lenses. The more professional photographer you look, the more difficult it gets. Computers, iPads, nobody knows.

I had my Sony S90 point-and-shoot, Canon 5DmkIII DSLR, wideangle and 24-70 mm lenses. I left the zoom to China. Too bad. While the customs guy was going through my staff I said "no GPS", he laughed, closed the bag and waved me forward.

The canadian got asked about cameras and showed him an iPod. All good. People didn't have trouble bring laptops and other to the country. iPads were fine, just tell that it's for watching movies. GPS is really the only, major thing.


  • flight-0001.jpg
    92.8 KB · Views: 32
  • flight-0002.jpg
    86.8 KB · Views: 32
  • flight-0003.jpg
    117.5 KB · Views: 31
  • flight-0004.jpg
    176.6 KB · Views: 30
  • flight-0009.jpg
    122.9 KB · Views: 29
  • flight-0012.jpg
    115.1 KB · Views: 30
  • flight-0015.jpg
    84.6 KB · Views: 31
  • other-0001.jpg
    116.3 KB · Views: 29


Senior Insider
I have arranged my photos by topic so I'll be "jumping around" a bit.


While in Pyongyang we were staying in Yanggakdo Hotel, which is presumably the finest. The exterior was being painted for a refreshing looks.

People talk about the hidden 5th floor that where the escalators never stop. Yes, it exists, it's the maintenance floor. The elevators are a bit funny, they don't stop on all floors, sometimes they go up, sometimes they go down, and you should reserve up to 15 minutes for the elevator trip during the busy breakfast hours. I took the stairs for a few floors couple of times when they were acting up, a bit spooky really.

No doubt one can see and feel all the spooky spy theories one wants to. That's obvious everywhere in NK. But seriously, I doubt there's nothing happening. Nobody cares. They don't have much spare change so when I bought couple of water bottles and paid in euros, they gave me a lighter as change. I don't smoke so I left the lighter at the hotel. On our way back we were staying at the same hotel, had the same rooms, and the lighter was still there where I left it.

The TV was showing the local channel, chinese and japanese channels, and BBC World. The local channel was a special "tourist edition" that would run longer than the national broadcasts. Now I've seen bicycling bears on TV.


The boulevard to the hotel was wide. And pretty quiet, too. The hotel was on an island and one was free to wonder around the premises, not that there was much to see really. One evening we were having dinner in Pyongyang and I finished early, checked the shop at the restaurant (they all have one, tourism..) and went sitting on the steps by the door. Watching ordinary people walking by, on the sideways. Nobody knew were I was, there were no guards, no guides, I could have "escaped to the Pyongyang night" or walked around the block.


That's the entrance to the basement where all the fun is. North Korean marble if you wonder.

Pool tables, bowling alley, swimming pool, barber shop, a casino, disco, karaoke, and a sauna & massage club with exclusively female staff. The tailor was on the first floor, more about that later. Everything, including the bar, is open 24h except when they close it. A bit weird really but "interesting dungeon".


This is North Korean beer. Excellent stuff! I believe the reason for the excellent beer and many micro-breweries(!) in North Korea is due to the DDR. During the DDR era they had german expertise come and establish the breweries and today we can enjoy the results.


This is also a good time to introduce our guide. She was a great guide, had a great singing voice and was a big fan of Michael Jackson.


  • other-0004.jpg
    81.3 KB · Views: 29
  • other-0003.jpg
    96.9 KB · Views: 29
  • other-0002.jpg
    114.7 KB · Views: 27
  • other-0007.jpg
    117.7 KB · Views: 27
  • other-0005.jpg
    81.3 KB · Views: 27


Senior Insider

One of the first sights was Arch of Triumph. It has been bulit to commemorate the Korean resistance to Japan from 1925 to 1945.

And of course it's bigger than in Paris. It's actually the world's tallest triumph, standing 197 ft (60 m).


Kim Il-sung Football Stadium next to the Arch of Triumph. Obviously the first thought is that the classic Mercedes-Benz is just a play.



The 492 feet Pyongyang TV Tower, on the front is Pyongyang Fun Fair. Our itinerary had a visit to the Fun Fair after a micro-brewery visit but unfortunately due to the children festivals the fun fair was closed during the evenings. Which is probably good because after the brewery, one of the attractions is called "vomit comet"..


  • archoftriumph-0004.jpg
    89 KB · Views: 28
  • archoftriumph-0005.jpg
    87 KB · Views: 26
  • archoftriumph-0001.jpg
    114 KB · Views: 26
  • archoftriumph-0002.jpg
    56.6 KB · Views: 26


Senior Insider
Pyongyang City

Pyoyngang is basicly a privileged city. If you're privileged enough, you can move from the rural areas to the city. The elite lives "somewhere", the privileged people get by somehow.


The amount of billboards is actually quite decent. But they do have their style.


Practising for parade.


A room with a view. This is actually from the hotel window. One can also spot the same view on the North Korean TV news in the background. We couldn't figure out the TV studio at the hotel, though, but we did try..



During the week it was a celebration for children. Here is one of the many bus that brought the children for the festivals.



This is actually green power. It's thermal power plant. Somehow it just worked better in black & white.



Ah, the famous cars that tout propaganda. What they actually play is the radio channel. There's music, too.


Some modern, recently finished chinese buildings.


.. with amazing LED lights. One of the very few places where one can see some light during the Pyongyang evenings.


There are about five billboards in Pyongyang selling cars. This is one of them and we saw all.

During the Pyongyang visit one can and will see many sights plenty of times. It isn't really because they want to show you just those things and hide the rest but because the roads are better. I can tell you that a week in a bus on North Korean roads does make a difference -- back in Beijing I slept the first night on floor, my back couldn't handle the soft mattress.




Sometimes you cannot put a picture into words. Sometimes I'm grateful that the weird human mind has given us so weird things to see.


Senior Insider





So who would you like to have on your apartment house wall?



The entrance to the Pyongyang department store is being washed. Everything is done by hand in NK.


Senior Insider
Pyongyang by Night

Not the night life but night..


For a city of 2.5 million people, it's pretty dark except for the attractions and the new buildings.



Juche Tower by night.

Gold Lane Bowling

Due to my victory during the night at the hotel, the dutch guy wanted a rematch. Or perhaps the bowling alley was on the itinerary anyway..



Mansudae Fountain Park


They do look like spys, don't they?



And a "race of taxi's". I couldn't help wondering what a taxi drive would cost and what would they do if a tourist actually took a ride.


Senior Insider
War Victory Monuments







Victorious Fatherland Liberation War monuments, also called the Korean War. Just like in Russia and eastern Europe, they don't have trouble putting some emotion into the monuments.

I know pretty much nothing about the Korean War but these huge monuments are impressive.

Traffic ladies


A classic.. Unfortunately NK had removed the stands for the traffic police. Actually as the traffic police are part of the military, you're not supposed to photograph them.


Notice the very creative truck in the background.



Seriously, they don't like taking photos of them and usually turn around. I wonder if the drivers like tourists influencing the smooth flow of traffic.

These girls do have power. One UN car just had to follow the rules, no question about it. One will not enter this road, period.

There's even a web site dedicated to the Pyongyang traffic police ladies,


Senior Insider
You are very intrepid. I wonder how Americans would be treated. I see the plane you posted has no closures for the overhead bins and you must have been really hungry to eat that airplane meal- ugh. This country looks so vacant and lost. Not my idea of fun. I'll read about it.


Senior Insider
USS Pueblo

USS Pueblo is the only US Navy ship that is being held captive by a foreign government.


But as one sees the ship, nobody cares really. The war is deep inside in North Korea, no doubt about it. Considering the amount of bombs dropped there, one can't really blame them.



Our lovely host on the boat. It's amazing how seriously they take things while still being very nice.

Notice the Kim-jong Il pin. This is the "old model". The new one has both Kim-jong Il and Kim Jong-un on it. The pin is like a medal for confirmation party, a treasure you're given when you grow up. You can't but it from the tourist shops nor anyone will give it to.


One of the military heroes that captured the spy ship suddenly appears on board.

Taedong Riverfront

After visiting the Pyongyang's main square where all the parades are held, we headed towards the riverfront for a "free walk".







Kids were rowing on the river for fun.





At this point we had pretty much forgotten all the guidelines. People didn't seem to mind being photographed, the kids were just great and spoke a few words in english, we could hear "hi!" everywhere, and as it was children's festival week, there were children everywhere.



.. and obviously it meant that our dutch friends were didn't hesitate to make contact with the kids. That's a lawyer and a 747-pilot.



.. and obviously the locals (local spys?) were suspicious about these activities. Perhaps we were marked for rest of our lives to be followed by NK agents.

While at the political level it's hard to make a difference at least these kids will now that there are friendly people out there. A small difference can grow into big one.

One of the guidelines was that we shouldn't photograph people. Oh, what the ..


Senior Insider
Pyongyang subway

One of my favourites, Pyongyang metro. It's not a tourist thing, there were quite a lot of local people using it and thank's to the children's festival, plenty of kids too. The teachers had an amazing control over them.

We had an extended metro tour with several stops and a five station ride.


The cars are classic from Berlin, East Germany.


With the stations, architectures, statues, metro ladies. Simply amazing. Obviously one cannot wonder if this is the world's best play or something else.

The "great thing" about North Korea is that it can be everything you expect it to be. If you are a great believer in spy stories and see conspiracy everywhere, you'll be given all the ideas you need. If you think it's just a poor country trying tho show off, it works as well. And everything in between.

Again this would have been a great opportunity to start wondering around the city.


Senior Insider
Ryonggak Mountain picnic

One of the highlights of the trip was a picnic on Ryonggak Mountain, a few miles from Pyongyang. Not because of the place as such, which was quite lovely, but because of the children's festivals. That meant that the park was full of kids.


A bunny riding a turtle. A bear with fruits. "Think different", as Apple would say.


The bbq food was just excellent. This can be the hard part of this type of trips, you travel to a place where you know is shortage of food and as a foreign tourist you are shown the best, an image that everything is just fine. I try to keep a simple rule, I eat what is being offered and I eat as much as I need to, and I hope that the leftovers will be taken care of.



And mandatory singing and music. The canadian guy spoke some korean so we got some contact with the non-guide locals.








A lot of kids in their school uniforms. They seemed to be genuinely interested in foreign people, and spoke a few words of english. They were curious but very shy.


Senior Insider
Ryonggak Mountain picnic ...






The dutch pilot had his iPad and a video of his daughter playing football in Hong Kong. These north korean kids knew quite a bit of foreign footballers, too.




When we walked back from the mountain, there were some families that were singing and dancing. If this interest in foreign people was a play, it was one of the best plays I have ever seen. And the biggest. My simple explanation would be that they live in their own bubble and they are happy when someone shows interest -- maybe without realising that we don't buy the bubble. From everything we saw, I just can't believe that everything was staged.

The swedish writer decided to join the dancing, even got himself an instrument to play.


Senior Insider
Monument for the party founding


They don't make these any more..



I was told this was the best angle to take a photograph. Nice.


Exhibitions of the Three Revolutions

At some point all this stuff does get into your head, and you cannot help but start to make jokes. The three revolutions of the Korean socialism are ideology, technology and culture.


These are all the technology Kim Il-Jong has invented, including the world's first engine.


This building displays all the space exploration North Korea has been involved in, including putting man into the moon. And I'm pretty sure they have jumped down from much higher than Felix did, and without a parachute.



North Korea also already masters the Star Gate technology which is still considered science fiction in the west.



A north korean-built car, with help from South Korea. The two white peace doves symbolize the peace and harmony between North and South Korea.

What was actually interesting was that the people had genuine wish for the Koreas to be united again. They felt that they had been separated by force and it was only a matter of time when the unification would happen. From a friend who travels to South Korea frequently I've heard that there is similar wish in South as well.


.. and they make awesome models, too.


Senior Insider
Arch of Reunification

This was constructed in 2001 to commemorate Korean reunification proposals put forward by Kim Il-sung.



This is the 6-lane Reunification Highway, or Freedom Highway as it's also called. It connects Pyongyang to Seoul -- well, in theory at least.

The nice thing was that one could actually walk to the middle of highway to take a picture without fear of traffic. A few hours on this road in a chinese bus is murder, the road was in much better condition here than elsewhere.


Senior Insider
Mangyongdae Children's Palace

One of of the youtube classics..


.. and after a visit to the Children's Palace, it starts to feel pretty normal. The school plays will never be the same again.


The Children's Palace is a huge building in Pyoyngyang. Presumably the kids can come to the palace after school and practise skills.



The have number of "showrooms" where the kids show what they can do. They are skilled, no doubt about it, but one can easily see that the teaching methods are probably quite harsh.


Senior Insider

We were quite lucky that the it was the children's festival week as the show was twice as long. There was also a lot of kids in the audience with their mobile phones -- turned out they were japanese kids with north korean parents that were visiting their "home country" and they could carry their phones.

I can't imagine what a japanese kids think about North Korea.


How often do you see that happening at your kid's school?


The education starts young.


Most of the plays had a story from the North Korean history or teachings.


No doubt it's all a show.


Senior Insider
Mansudae Grand Monument

Mansudae is probably the best known monument from Pyongyang and North Korea. Until recently it used to be such a statue of Kim Il Jong but March this year they replaced the old statue with a duo of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.



This is really the "Vatican of North Korea". The whole thing makes sense when you start to think the system as a religion. In fact if one reads all the stories about Kim Il-sung there is a lot similarities to the christian stories.

If these guys believe it, so be it. Not much difference from visiting Vatican or any other church, just respect the local beliefs even if you don't agree with them.


The mandatory pose.





Senior Insider

On our way back from the Ryonggak Mountain picnic there was a small lake with a wedding rituals taking place.



Such a beautiful dress!


The newly weds throw bread to the lake for the fish to hope success in their marriage and lives.


Bride's mother.

Obviously this was all arranged for our small group :)